Oct 18, 2020 - Economy

Struggling retailers hope for a Christmas miracle

Illustration of a cash register with the date 12-25 on the display

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Retailers on the brink are counting on what's possibly the most uncertain holiday season ever for a last shot at survival.

Why it matters: Giants like Amazon and Walmart (plus those that have benefited from work-from-home needs) are thriving. For others, the all-important shopping season is unfolding against the bleakest backdrop for the industry in years.

The backstory: The pandemic — and the economic cratering that accompanied it —intensified a long, slow industry decline that’s been underway for the past decade.

  • The sector is on pace to top the worst year for retail bankruptcies on record: 2010, when the industry saw a post-financial crisis shakeout.
  • Some (like department store chain Century 21) recently filed for bankruptcy and plan to shutter stores — they couldn't hold out for what's typically the most lucrative part of the year.
  • Retailers have shuttered more stores this year than ever before, according to data from BDO, cited by the Wall Street Journal.

The retailers still treading water are coming up on what's always been their most crucial season — and there's no guarantee it will deliver.

  • In normal times, about 20% of all retail sales in the U.S. come from the holiday shopping season, according to the National Retail Federation.
  • Retailers get a big chunk of annual profit in the final quarter of the year. In the case of Macy's, that number was as high as 58% in 2018, per S&P data.
  • Adding to the tension: While 55% of shoppers plan to spend more or the same as they spent last year, a sizable chunk — 40% — plans to spend less, according to a PwC survey.

What they’re saying: This holiday season is struggling retailers' "last effort to be relevant for the consumer and to prove their reason for existence," Sarah Wyeth, a retail analyst at credit rating agency S&P Global, tells Axios.

  • On the watchlist: Guitar Center, women's retailer J.Jill, and Party City are most at risk of not being able to pay off debt, according to Moody's.

What's at stake: Struggling chains may not be able to make critical investments to stand out against better-capitalized competitors.

  • They may not be able to buy up inventory or buff up e-commerce systems to offer the things that have become even more popular since the pandemic hit, like home delivery or curbside pickup, Wyeth says.

Yes, but: The retailers that wiped out debts in bankruptcy court since filing at the onset of the pandemic could have more runway to spend.

What to watch: “There will be more challenges for retailers as the employment picture seems to be softening,” James Knightley, an economist at ING, said in a research note this week.

  • One glimmer of hope: Online and in-store spending has already eclipsed the pre-pandemic level — a rare “V-shaped” recovery.
  • But that measure is broad and includes spending at restaurants and auto shops, so it's unclear whether the struggling retailers will snap up consumer dollars in the coming months.

The bottom line, as business turnaround adviser David Berliner told Forbes: “A lot of on-the-edge retailers are saying, 'Let’s get one more holiday season under our belt. Maybe we can get a good holiday somehow.'"

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